Researchers are developing biodegradable nanoparticles that could reduce the amount of harmful chemicals in pesticides. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: In this lab at North Carolina State University the future of keeping crops free of harmful bacteria is taking shape - albeit a very small shape. Researcher Alexander Richter is designing a new type of nanoparticle with lignin, an organic polymer found in almost all plants and trees, at its core. Currently, silver based nanoparticles are used in a wide range of pesticides to treat crops, but while silver has strong anti-microbial properties, its use is controversial. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ALEXANDER RICHTER, NCSU PH.D. CANDIDATE, SAYING: "Their post-application activity when released into the environment was actually seen as a potential concern by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This is because the particles may stay active after the application, they may translocate after the application, they may kill good bacteria in the environment, which is undesired." (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. ORLIN VELEV, INVISTA PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL & BIOMOLECULAR ENGINEERING, SAYING: "So the problem is how do you potentially remove that danger from engineered nanomaterials?" The answer was to use less silver and replace the metallic core with lignin, making the newly engineered particles biodegradable but still an effective weapon in tackling dangerous bacteria like e-coli. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ALEXANDER RICHTER, NCSU PH.D. CANDIDATE, SAYING: "Our idea, or our approach, was to see if we can, if this is the problem, we replace the metallic core, which doesn't participate in microbial action, with a biodegradable core. And by doing so, we could actually make the nanoparticles keep their functionality but make them degradable while also reducing the amount of the silver core in the nanoparticle system." And that equates to safer fruits and vegetables that are treated with less with chemicals as they grow. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. ORLIN VELEV, INVISTA PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL & BIOMOLECULAR ENGINEERING, SAYING: "We believe that this can lead to a new generation of agricultural treatment products, that they're going to be more efficient, that they're going to use less chemicals, and that they're going to be more friendly toward the environment." The team has started a company to take their research to the next level with the hopes of perfecting the technology, scaling it up, and preparing it for commercialization.